Still Stuck on Castro

How the press handled a tyrant's farewell


In a country where major news developments rarely precipitate anything but deeper misery, Cuba awoke Tuesday to the news that el jefe maximo, Fidel Castro, had formally ceded power to his younger brother Raul. Cuba has grown accustomed to a seemingly endless and ageless set of images of the revolutionary father delivering a stultifying oration on Yanqui this-or-that, reposing in a monogrammed track suit, mumbling incoherently about his days in the Sierra Maestra. But to Cuba watchers and exiles, his official ceding of power was unexpected.

The 81-year-old Castro tendered his resignation in column form, carried in Cuba's national newspaper (there is, excluding a flimsy "youth publication," just one). Lifting language from Lyndon Johnson (one of the many presidents that, the deeply serious pundit is required to mention, he has "outlived"), Fidel declared, "I will neither aspire to nor accept—I repeat, I will neither aspire to nor accept—the positions of President of the State Council and Commander in Chief." Delusional until the end, Castro presumes that his indentured subjects demand eternal revolution, forcing him to repeat that, no, it will be little Raul, 76, who will guide the Cuban people towards a classless and cashless utopia. MSNBC's Chris Matthews apparently believes this too, asking Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), co-sponsor of the monumentally stupid, embargo-expanding Helms-Burton Act, why "Cubans on the island still support the Castro brothers."

The preceding days have demonstrated that information peddled by Castro's legion of academic and celebrity apologists has deeply penetrated the mainstream media consciousness, with credulous reporting sundry revolutionary "successes" of the regime: not so good on free speech, but oh-so-enviable on health care and education.

In an email to staffers, with the nudging subject line "Castro guidance," CNN producer Allison Flexner advised reporters to be fair and not to focus solely on the regime's repressiveness. "Please note Fidel did bring social reforms to Cuba," writes Flexner, "namely free education and universal health care, and racial integration in addition to being criticized for oppressing human rights and freedom of speech."

Well, wrong on all three counts, but more on that later. That evening, CNN's ubiquitous foreign correspondent Christiane Amanpour appeared on a panel to hail the end of Castro's rule while managing to mention that he was "a leader in many things such as education, health care." Message received, Atlanta!

In Europe, The Guardian's Latin American correspondent Rory Carroll admonished Cuba for its human rights violations while praising "the government's success in offering all its citizens free access to education and healthcare, resulting in western levels of literacy and life expectancy." That's at best a dubious achievement, considering that Cuba is situated in the West. "Compared with other Latin American countries," Carroll gushed, "Cuba is notable for its absence of beggars, violent crime and extreme inequality," because everyone is equally poor. The average monthly salary in Cuba is 330 pesos—about $13.75.

Thirteen measly bucks and there aren't any beggars in Cuba? Well, not really. As one Miami Herald reporter observed in December 2006, "Anyone strolling through Cuba's tourist spots like Old Havana is likely to encounter a number of panhandlers, from the disabled like Avila and the elderly like Cecilia in the Plaza de Armas, to those struggling with mental illness such as Irma Castillo at the Parque Central." The British left-wing magazine The New Internationalist reported, "On the streets of Havana there are two relatively common sights that wouldn't have been seen 20 years ago: cellphones and beggars." (Cell phone use is, naturally, heavily regulated by the government, ensuring that Cuba ranks second to last in a recent United Nations table of cell phones per person. For those scoring at home, only Papua New Guinea ranks lower.)

The British news agency Reuters tells us that Castro came to power by overthrowing "U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista." And Batista was a dictator—one alternately supported, tolerated, and disliked by Washington. As historian Hugh Thomas, author the magisterial book Cuba or the Pursuit of Freedom, wrote, "American assistance to Batista was never explicitly forthcoming." By 1958, a year before Castro's seizure of power, the U.S. had instituted an arms embargo against Batista, and elements within the CIA and State Department were actively agitating for a Castro victory. Indeed, it was the British government that agreed to sell Batista military hardware—15 fighter planes—when the Eisenhower administration refused.

And how does Reuters describe Castro? After 50 years of brutal one-party rule, to apply the appellation "dictator" seems a rather contentious issue: "Vilified by opponents as a totalitarian dictator, Castro is admired in many Third World nations for standing up to the United States and providing free education and health care." And again, we return to education and health care.

The AP, retracing the history of modern Cuba, explains that Castro's "revolutionaries opened 10,000 new schools, erased illiteracy, and built a universal health care system." And what kind of schools, what kind of education system, did they inaugurate? As Georgetown University professor Eusebio Mujal-Leon has observed, "The [rewritten Cuban] Constitution made the furtherance of Marxism-Leninism the purpose of education, and through its Article 38 made the latter a function of the state." What good is universal literacy if one can be arrested for possession of an Orwell book? What good is "free" education if honest academic inquiry is forbidden?

In fairness to fourth-estaters, it wasn't just journalists that cribbed from the party script. The ridiculous Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) was the only American politician to debase himself by issuing a Granma-worthy press release actually praising Castro. This week's events prove, Serrano wrote, "that Castro sees clearly the long-term interests of the Cuban people," including the selfless decision to hand power to his brother, thus saving the Cuban people from the indignity of electoral choice. "I would like to congratulate both Fidel Castro and the Cuban people for this smooth transition of power," continued, "Few leaders, having been on the front lines of history so long, would be able to voluntarily step aside in favor of a new, younger generation." The absurdities of that sentence are too many to catalog, though note that the "younger generation" is represented by Fidel's septuagenarian brother Raul.

Writing in The New Statesman, British parliamentarian John McDonnell, the Right Honorable Gentleman from 1968, offers high praise for Cuban communism and demonstrates a level of credulity not seen since John Reed vacationed in Moscow. But don't mention Moscow, because, as McDonnell bizarrely writes, "unlike Stalin's Russia there have never been any Cuban gulags." What's not to like, he asks, about a country that provides "free prescriptions, free care for the elderly, free university education."

So again, the health and education canard returns. What all of these pols and pundits lazily presume is that if the state of Cuban health care and education have markedly improved on Castro's watch, surely the situation was dire during the final years of the Batista dictatorship.

Well, not exactly. In 1959 Cuba had 128.6 doctors and dentists per 100,000 inhabitants, placing it 22nd globally—that is, ahead of France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Finland. In infant mortality tables, Cuba ranked one of the best in the world, with 5.8 deaths per 100,000 babies, compared to 9.5 per 100,000 in the United States. In 1958 Cuba's adult literacy rate was 80 percent, higher than that of its colonial grandfather in Spain, and the country possessed one of the most highly-regarded university systems in the Western hemisphere.

Cuba improved, as have most countries, on some of these indices in the years since the revolution. As reason Contributing Editor Glenn Garvin points out, "countries like Costa Rica, Panama, and Brazil have posted equal gains in literacy during the same time period without resorting to totalitarian governments." (For more reason coverage over the years on Cuba and Castro, go here.)

This is precisely the point: Punctual trains and spiffy highway networks hardly mitigate the horror of dictatorship. Such "advances," like the illusory gains of the Cuban Revolution, are best achieved through policies that promote economic and political freedom. You would think, almost 20 yeas after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that journalists would understand that.

Michael C. Moynihan is an associate editor of reason.